Skip to main content

Africa's not for sissies.

Free Fire
(2016)

(SPOILERS) I had low expectations for Free Fire, as nothing I’ve seen by Ben Wheatley has equalled the hype surrounding him. Yet this, which has garnered a somewhat mixed reaction, is streets ahead of his previous form, a very funny, delightfully-staged “bottle episode” period crime movie with an eclectic cast bouncing deliriously off each other.


Wheatley’s critical moment really occurred with Kill List, which ever so slightly left me with that feeling you get when you weren’t in on the joke. If that’s his outright horror picture, there’s nevertheless a streak of the macabre persisting through all his genre diversions to date (his next is a sci-fi featuring Alicia Vikander battling giant crabs with a shotgun …)  Free Fire’s no different, but here he’s wallowing in the ineptitude of violence, taking the warehouse setting of Reservoir Dogs but straining the tension through ghoulish giggles. An arms deal goes south not for reasons of double-crossing (although that does come into the mix) but due to a dispute between a couple of supporting idiots on the fringes of both parties.


Wheatley’s frequent good luck charm Michael Smiley excels as IRA man Frank, who with a very breezy Cillian Murphy (Chris) is arranging to purchase some MI6s that turn out to be AR70s (no, I wouldn’t know the difference either) from Sharlto Copley’s Vernon (in full-on South African scumbag mode). In the formers’ camp are Brie Larson (Justine), Enzo Cilenti (Bernie) and a hilariously useless Sam Riley (Stevo). Riley’s accent most certainly isn’t going to win him any awards, but his dishevelled inadequate is gifted some marvellously puerile lines (and, ultimately, the most OTT death scene).


On Copley’s team are Armie Hammer’s Ord (magnificently superior and, with Chris, one of the few present who seems to be able to shoot straight), Babou Ceesay’s Martin, who looks like a goner when he’s shot in the head, until he isn’t, Jack Reynor’s Harry (sporting odious chin whiskers and an attitude that winds pretty much everyone up, even on his side; he’s the one kicks things off when he shoots Stevo) and Noah Taylor’s Gordon. Also showing up is Patrick Bergin, who I completely failed to recognise, but it has been about 25 years since I saw him in anything.


Wheatley and regular co-writer Amy Jump (also editing collaborators; laudably, the geography of the action is only confusing when it’s supposed to be confusing) deliver wall-to-wall one-liners and putdowns (it’s hard to believe Murphy didn’t think it was a comedy when he read it, even given the fair amount of improvisation that was encouraged on set), and not a little John Denver to punctuate the proceedings (the score itself from Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury displays moments of greatness too, particularly The Phone Rings).


Stevo assumes Vernon, “an international asshole” who was mistaken for a child genius and never got over it, is Austrian because of his accent. Copley revels in being a complete tool, attempting the tough act (“Africa’s not for sissies”) before squealing over a flesh wound, suggesting Hammer deal with the situation (“You distract him with your badinage and I leave”) and professing survival skills developed with Rhodesian special forces (“Hey Vern, I like your cardboard armour”).


Chisel-jawed Ord also comes in for much mockery (“Hey Ord, I bet you thought you were too handsome to get shot, huh?”; “Save it for your fucking autobiography”) and the only problem with the best line, attributed to Stevo (“I forgot whose side I’m on”), is that it comes too early, accompanied by insufficient mayhem to land at the most effective moment.


The ‘70s duds and hair are on the fancy dress side, sure, but the location (actually in Brighton) is a truly fetid dump of dirty needles, rubble and puddles, offering little cover while everyone scrambles for some, the best they can, amid wild gunfire and ridiculous ricochets. Wheatley excels in his camera placement picks, establishing tension and claustrophobia from limited lines of sight and movement. His only concessions to the main arena are an upstairs room containing a ringing telephone and the entrance corridor, but when action proceeds to those locations it’s just as contained, usually because characters have been reduced to crawling the distance.


Perhaps on the basis of past such setups (Reservoir Dogs not least), I was expecting a reveal of an undercover cop that never came, but Justine’s double-cross – though it had occurred to me she might be that non-existent cop – did come as a final shocker, especially since Ord and Chris are just about to grab a conciliatory beer. Chris is so gracious in his demise (“I’m sorry, you got in the way” admits Justine, not such a sharp shooter) you rather wish better for him (although, as with Dogs, the police arrive just in time to spoil Justine’s clean getaway).


That said, everyone here is so entertaining (maybe Taylor fails to etch out a memorable character), you don’t really want to see any of them die. I didn’t think I’d ever say this, but a few more like this and I might be a Wheatley convert. I’m not sure his dabblings are any deeper or more invested in “character” than, say, David O Russell’s genre washes, but there’s more personality and less cynicism. And he also knows not to outstay his welcome.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016)
(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998)
An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar.

Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins, and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whether the audience was on …

Old Boggy walks on Lammas Eve.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.5: Kidnapped  (aka The Mysterious Stranger)
Kidnapped continues the saga of Chuffnell Hall. Having said of 2.4 that the best Wodehouse adaptations tend to stick closely to the text, this one is an exception that proves the rule, diverging significantly yet still scoring with its highly preposterous additions.

Jeeves: Tis old boggy. He be abroad tonight. He be heading for the railway station.
Gone are many of the imbroglios involving Stoker and Glossop (the estimable Roger Brierley), including the contesting of the former’s uncle’s will. Also gone, sadly, is the inebriated Brinkley throwing potatoes at Stoker, which surely would have been enormous fun. Instead, we concentrate on Bertie being locked aboard Stoker’s yacht in order to secure his marriage to Pauline (as per the novel), Chuffy tailing Pauline in disguise (so there’s a different/additional reason for Stoker to believe Bertie and she spent the night together, this time at a pub en route to Chufnell Hall) and …

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).